My Journeys in Japan

or

How to Scare Children Without Even Trying

Ah Japan. Japan is a wonderful country completely filled with Japanese people. I'm talking seriously packed here. And for one very lovely week in august, I got the chance to share in some of their lunacy. This all came about because I'm dating a Japanese girl named Junko. I'm not entirely sure how it is she planned this trip, but before I even knew her she already had a ticket back home to see her family for a week. At some point during the course of our relationship, I somehow managed to insert myself into those plans. I can't say for sure whether she invited me or I invited myself, but either way I ended up with a ticket, which was pretty damned cool. See I've always wanted to visit Japan, but figured I wouldn't get a chance seeings how I don't speak Japanese, and not many Japanese people speak English. Luckily for me, Junko speaks both. So on a dreary New Zealand Saturday morning a little over a week ago, Junko and I made our way to the bus stop, to begin our trip to Japan.

Day 0 - Offending the Family

The flight itself was without incident, though for historical reasons it's worth noting that this particular morning was 2 mornings after a bunch of folks in England where caught working on a plot to blow up a bunch of airplanes. So security in aviation was a bit more strict then usual. Flights to and from the US and England where locked down to the point where all passengers where allowed to carry a passport and a wallet in a clear plastic bag onto the plane with them. The only liquid allowed was bottles for babies, and the parents had to drink some of the formula to prove to airport security that it wasn't the kind of formula that blows up (or poisons babies I suppose, but that was of secondary concern). Thankfully our trip wasn't bound for England or the US, so we didn't face any such restrictions. I'm happy to report that all the passengers (babies included) made it to Japan without incident.

We arrived in Osaka in the evening, I don't remember exactly when. We arrived with very little time to make it to a ferry which would take us to Kobe where her brother would be waiting. We also arrived with very little sleep, which explains why I don't really remember many of the details from this part of the trip. I do remember that while I was getting off the ferry I banged my head up good on the ceiling. This leads to a common theme in my trip to Japan, which is that Japanese people are short. This wouldn't be of much concern to me except that I often found myself in situations where I was in imminent danger of banging my head. On this particular occasion I banged my head in full view of about 3 ferry personnel who found themselves in the incredibly embarrasing position of having to choke back laughter. Junko quickly perceived their unease and worked to eleviate any tension by loudly laughing at me. This of course freed them up to laugh at me with no shame. I was very releived that no one had to feel bad because I had smacked my head full on into some metal bar that I think was made of solid lead (or some other amazingly dense, head bashing metal).

Anyway, before long her brother's van pulled up to the ferry building and I got to meet both her younger brother, Tomo, and her mom, whom I called "Momma-San" for the duration of the trip because Junko thought that would be funny. Now I was faced with the question that had been occupying my mind for quitte some time, how do you make a good impression on someone you can't speak to? Well I started off by repeating the phrase one of Junko's friends had taught me, which I hoped meant something along the lines of "nice to meet you." I think I must have been somewhat close to saying it right as she smiled big and repeated it back and let me get into the van. So the four of us took off for Momma-San's house.

At this point I should mention another question that had been occupying my mind for a while, which was how long would it take for me to do something COMPLETELY stupid? Well the answer is that I can do something completely stupid in less then 30 minutes. You see the van ride back was one of incredible happiness. Junko had been looking forward to seeing her mom and younger brother for a long time now, and she was just obviously incredibly happy. And while I don't speak Japanese it was still very obvious that everyone was really happy to get a chance to talk to each other. For the most part I tried to keep quiet and out of the way, but I have to admit, I was pretty excited by all the happiness in the van at that moment, so I would occasionally parrot back things I'd heard that sounded funny or familiar, and for the most part they would laugh at my "joke" or just generally at me, so I was having a great time. Well we stopped for gas and Tomo went out to do the pumping which just left me with Junko and Momma-San. Junko pointed out some funny cup holder her brother had and said something that sounded familiar to me, so I put on a big smile and parroted the sounds right back. The conversation just stopped dead. I figured this meant my pronounciation was off, so I parroted again, louder and with a bigger smile. No reaction. Junko looked like I had slapped her and quietly said "Um, don't worry Honey, I'll translate the things you need to worry about." I did my best to put on a look of apologetic shame and sat quietly for the rest of the trip. Eventually I got a chance to ask her what I had said. She told me that I had basically perked up, pointed at her brother's cup holder and blurted out an incredibly rude term for masturbation. Beleive it or not, by the end of this story her mom actually likes me.

The car ride was over before too long and I found myself heading into Momma-San's apartment. I have to admit I was a little nervous as Junko had been warning me about how very small the place was. Turns out it was pretty small, but oddly functional. Unfortunately the doorways where all about 3 feet tall and I banged my head many many times over the course of the trip. Junko has a cute way of saying "watch out your head" which eventually became the soundtrack to our times at home. In any case I very quickly figured out the answer to a burning question I've had about the Japanese, what the hell is with taking off the shoes? Well it turns out that taking off the shoes in only half of the story. The other half is that they do a lot of floor based stuff. Momma-San's living room was just a tatami mat on the floor. Junko, Mamma-San, Tomo, and myself all went in and just sat down on the floor. This seemed completely crazy to me, but I had to admit, it was pretty comfortable. One of the things that made it comfortable was that the floor was really clean. And of course the main reason the floor was so clean is that no one tracks in any dirt on their shoes. I tell you, there's a method to their madness. The rest of the apartment was interesting too, mostly just for the incredible use of space. The kitchen has a small shower room right next to it, so when you slide those typical Japanese paper door things closed it beocmes a very private shower and changing area. When you open the sliding doors up, the apartment becomes pretty roomy. The toilet had a neat trick going on too. Instead of a flat top where you can put your magazines it had a little pipe thing and sink going on. So when you flushed the toilet the clean water filled the tank by pouring into this little sink, so you could wash your hands while the tank filled. I wonder how much water this saves a household each year? It was so simple as to be genious. Anyway it was getting late so we decided to head to bed. Guess where the guest bedroom was... that's right, it was the living room. Close more sliding paper doors, throw 2 thin futon mattresses on the floor, and SHA-ZAM, bedroom.

Day 1 - Wakayama

Unfortunately there wasn't much sleep for me that night. By the time we turned off the lights and said good night (in various languages) it was about midnight. The alarm clock was set for 3:30am! Why was the alarm clock set so rediculously early? Well we had our big family vacation to start the next day. We where going to a place called Wakayama. In an effort to beat traffic to Wakayama, Tomo wanted to get an early start. So picture the situation, I have a 12 hour flight, then 3.5 hours of sleep, then I have to get in a car for 4 hours and try to somehow be friendly enough to convince my girlfriend's family that I'm a nice guy. How the hell do you pull that off? Well I pulled it off with the help of my favourite new drink, "Cohee." Cohee is how the Japanese say coffee, and given that it was 90 degrees with stupid humidity, cohee is served iced. It's also got more cream and sugar then a cup from Dunkin Donuts, so after my first bottle I was completely set. In fact I was giggly. The car ride for me is something of a blur, but I do remember busting up laughing when I saw my first Engrish sign, which was for UCC coffee. I don't have a picture of that one, but I do have a photo of another one. That's right, good coffee smile.

Eventually we made it to Wakayama. And it's a good thing we started out early, because we only made it there with 6 hours before we could check into our hotel. Heaven forbid we actually slept in and got there 5 hours later. This left us with a sort of odd plan for the day, which seemed to be to wander around in a half comotose stupor while trying to fill the time in oppressive heat. Our first stop was at a fish market, which really just defies explentation. It was big. Huge. Just an incredible amount of fish and candy sweets. We wandered around for a while sampling various fish, including this horrifying little salt preserved fish that was just amazingly disgusting. Momma-San ate them like candy, and with a big smile thrust a couple into my hands. I ate half of one and discreetly handed the rest to Junko. That little fish was one of two things I ate the whole week that I really didn't enjoy. I was tasting salt for half an hour. Anyway, I'll come back to the fish market because later in the story we make a return trip and it's much more interesting. From there we headed to some kind of rocky shore thing. I'm vague in my explenation because I never did understand the significance. Junko told me it was somewhere her mom had always wanted to visit, but she had no idea why. Here's one of Momma-San, Junko, and Tomo. Notice that Tomo's flashing the peace sign? He and his wife, Yuuki, do that for every picture. It's weird, you point a camera at them and the peace sign comes up. Sometimes Junko does it too. This one is cute. At one point I found a little crab in a tidal pool. I mentioned it to Junko and she and Tomo rushed off to check it out. Unfortunatly the crab had moved by then and I felt bad to have sent them on a wild goose chase. Stupid crab. Here's one of Tomo showing off his belly which he referred to as "Fuji-San" (or Mount Fuji for us English speakers).

From one rocky place by the sea to another. For this one notice the cave to the left. That plays a part in the story later. But for now some couples pics. Here's one of Tomo and Yuuki, one of Junko and Momma-San, one of me and Junko (for those who keep asking for one), and one of Tomo showing me how it works. Not far from all those photos there was an odd little tourist trap on a cliff. Apparently in the 70s (or so it looked from the really tacky outfits the owners where wearing in the photos) some guy decided to build an elevator shaft that ran from the top of the cliffs down into the caves. And for a mere $12 you too can head on down. When you get down there you'll find lots of samurai weapons, a temple of some kind, and ledges at sea level where you can watch the water crash into the caves (which is really cool) and occasionally get the tourists wet. Lastly if you're really lucky, and you're desperate to prove to your girlfriend's family that you're a fun guy, you can put on a funny hat, stand behind a suit of armour, and make a complete ass of yourself while offending an entire culture. Yes the caves are truly a wonderful vacation destination.

From there we where off to a bizarre... fish tower? I don't know what you'd call this thing, but basically someone had built a tower from about 20 feet below sea level, up to this walkway that went back to shore. When you get to the tower you notice that inside it is a set of spiral stairs leading down under water. Then at the bottom of the stairs they have windows, so you can watch fish. Unfortunately the pics sort of stink, but imagine something like this, only cooler. At one point someone up on the top of the tower put a bunch of food into a big net and dropped it in. Complete feeding frenzy, it was crazy. After watching Japanese fish for a while we went back to the top and got an unexpected view of some other Japanese wildlife. You see whoever built the bridge hadn't taken into account their neighbors very well. The next structure along the beach is a sauna of some type, so we where treated to an interesting view of a bunch of old Japanese men relaxing naked on some rocks by the sea. Every one of you reading this owes me a huge debt of gratitude for not posting any photos.

From the great underwater fish tower we went on to the great underwater fish tower gift shop. I haven't mentioned it before, but every one of these locations has a gift shop attached. I can't make fun of this fact, it's the same in the States. We went to every gift shop to partake in a very important survival technique, namely pretending to be interested in buying junk so we could spend as long as possible in the air conditioned room. I should mention that one of the other words in my limited Japanese vocabulary is "hot." Anyway I mention this gift shop because I found myself in pretty ammusing situation in this one. And by "ammusing" I mean Junko was laughing her face off at me. While I was browsing the various "I saw the great underwater fish tower" refrigerator magnets I suddenly noticed this short, older, crazy Japanese man trying desperately to get my attention. This guy worked one of the counters and he was just busting himself to get me to come talk to him. I looked around desperately for Junko for help, but she had pulled some kind of ninja move and was nowhere to be seen. So I walked over and tried to say hi and explain that I couldn't speak Japanese. He didn't care what language I spoke, he immediately grabbed this squirt bottle full of water and just shot it directly onto my glasses. I was shocked to the point of paralyzed, but pretty soon realized he was trying to get me to take off my glasses so he could clean them. So I obliged and he really quickly grabbed a tissue and wiped them up nice and shiny. He didn't give them back though, instead he opened up his mouth and started making an ah sound and gesturing that I should do the same. So I did the ah thing and he squirted the bottle into my mouth a bit. It was very refreshing. Then he squirted it onto my bald head, laughing the whole time. then he got a napkin and wiped my brow dried, spun me around, shot the back of my head and started pounding on my shoulders in a sort of massaging motion. At this point I was completely confused, but I managed to smile big, laugh with him, get my glasses, and get the hell away. I hadn't taken two steps away (smiling and bowing and waving back to him) before I FINALLY saw Junko. She had appeared pretty much right in front of me and was laughing harder then I'd ever seen her laugh before. Apparently nutty old men with squirt bottles are the height of Japanese humor.

After we left the gift shop we headed on back to the very same fish market we had been to that morning. It's a shame I don't have any pictures of this fish market from the outside. It's like pulling up to a large Wall Mart, only instead of a big sign that says "Wall Mart," you see a really big fish. Also there's this PA system that's constantly announcing something. I have no idea what it's saying, but I did learn something about the language itself. When spoken normally, Japanese is a pleasant enough sounding language. When some poor jerk has to work some shit job where they have to repeat the same annoying phrase over and over again, the language turns into this HORRIBLE nasal, whining thing. Well the woman reading the PA announcements has obviously been doing it a long time, because she sounds just awful. The PA system itself sounds like an old bullhorn, adding to the general accoustic rape you have to go through while walking in the horribly hot sun from your car, which is parked 5 miles away in a packed parking lot, to the front door of the fish market. But fear not, because it turns out that what the woman was saying over this PA system was the greatest thing ever. She was telling everyone in a 100 mile radius, that the fish market had obtained a 200kg (roughly 440 pound) tuna which it was going to be butchering soon. Holy Shit you say! Not a 200kg tuna! Dear reader, I shit you not. Just about everyone in the entire district was packed into this fish market to watch some dude butcher this fish. It was damned huge. Here it is just a little bit shorter. Unfortunately I don't seem to have any others, but we stayed to watch it loose its head and various other bits. The first piece cut out was apparently the best piece on the entire tuna. It was about as big as 2 fists and sold for $100 to a guy that I think bought it just to show off.

While I was watching the big fish get butchered our little party was joined by 4 more folks. Not just random folks, mind you, but more of Junko's family. That's right she also has an older brother named Kuni. Kuni has a wife, Ayumi, and 2 kids, Kazuki and Mizuki. Delightful, aren't they? Don't worry, they're not actually zombies. You see there was some really oddball add on TV around then for some kind of popsicle thing. In this add the people enjoying the popsicle would sing a song and make a face that if you exagurate becomes the face that Kazuki and Mizuki are making. And who would try to get two sweet, innocent, incredibly Japanese children to make such rediculous faces? That would be Tomo. Every time he would sing the song and make the face, the kids would join in. It was cute. At one point Momma-San asked Kazuki to make the face for her again and he told her he was sorry, but making that face hurt his eyes, so he couldn't do it again just then. Anyway, I don't have any photos of Kuni and Ayumi, but trust me when I tell you that they're not zombies either.

After the whole family finally joined up we all went out for lunch (which was uneventful enough that I'll skip it) and headed to our hotel. Now I wish I had pictures of the hotel room, but I don't feel right taking pictures of living areas so I skipped it. However it was nothing like what I'd ever have expected. In fact what Junko had told me was that we where going to a traditional and nice Japanese hotel. So I wasn't sure what to expect, but I figured some kind of large, multi-roomed suite with big comfy beds and maybe an eating area. So we open up the door to this place and find basically one small room. I'm not kidding. There was a little foyer area for taking off your shoes, then a sink, and a tiny toilet room (the Japanese seem to put only the toilet inside the bathroom, and the bathroom is only big enough for the toilet). So this little foyer area had a sliding paper door thing, and then the one main room. The main room was really small, and the floor was all covered in tatami mats (like Momma-San's place). When we showed up there was a little dwarf table in the middle of it (table for 4 that stood about a foot tall) and 4 chairs that had no legs. So I guess you could call this little room the eating room I was expecting, but there was no other room at all, and no big comfy beds. Of course at this point Junko and I where downright exhausted (remember, 12 hour flight followed by 3.5 hours of sleep) so I didn't really care about a lack of beds, I could have slept on the freaking floor. And of course, that's exactly where we did sleep. We barely had time to put our stuff down when we just lay right down in a corner of the room and went to sleep. It was great. I think the rest of the family went swimming, but I was dead to the world. I'm not sure how long I slept for, but I'm thinking it was around 2 months.

Eventually I woke up and Junko suggested I head off to check out the spa and have a shower before dinner. To me this sounds like something of an adventure, because it will be my first chance to head off on my own a bit. Junko helps me memorize the room number because if I forget this I will end up roaming the halls of a Japanese hotel alone and crying. She then takes me down to the spa area and points out which one is for men, so I don't end up arrested. Then I'm off on my own to try to figure out a Japanese spa. Let me tell you, it was confusing, and the stakes are high. I mean who knows how much offense you can cause if you get naked at the wrong point? I found myself alone in some kind of changing room with absolutely no idea what to do next. I noticed some baskets full of clothes, so I figured I should take off my clothes in the room. But exactly how much clothes do I take off? And do I then strut around naked, or am I expected to wrap myself in a towel? While I'm trying to figure this out another guy comes in, which is good because I figure I can discreetly follow his lead. However he's quickly followed by (and I swear I'm not making this up) his young daughter. So now I'm half naked, wondering about how naked I'm supposed to get, in a room with a 5 year old girl, and her dad. I'm thinking one wrong move and I'll end up with a sword through my gut. I decide to err on the side of caution and do one of those extremely awkward moves where you put a towel around your waist before you take off your underwear. It was embarrasing, but I didn't show anything personal to a little girl. With a towel around my waist I then went into the next room to see my first ever traditional Japanese shower. Thankfully Junko had told me a little bit about what one of these looked like, because if I didn't know I would have seriously just turned around and went back at this point, maybe splashed some water on my face in the sink or something. You see a traditional Japanese shower is done sitting down. What do you sit on, you ask? Well these little plastic stools. And the stools are really low, so it's not so much sitting as squatting. And yes, when you squat naked on a little plastic stool you really are hanging out as much as you imagine. And don't even think about being discreet, because the wall you're facing is covered with mirrors. So there I squatted, feeling really extra naked, and managed to wash myself off as best I could. The shower itself is a nozzle on a flexible hose, so you manage to get a pretty good wash going on while sitting there. Of course there's no place to put my towel because what kind of idiot would be stupid enough to walk into a Japanese shower with a towel around his waist? In the middle of the shower room there was a pool, but I was really pretty bored with the whole making a fool of myself thing at this point, so I just went back to change. Thankfully I managed to get out before the little girl came back.

After my shower it was time for dinner. The whole family went on down to the dining room for the hotel. You can probably guess what's coming next, the big fancy dining room for the hotel was just a large room covered with tatami mats. The dining set is a pillow and dwarf table for every person. Everyone's individual dwarf table is covered in little dishes of various things that where generally fish based, but honestly I don't really know what I was eating. The center piece to the whole meal was this awesome spread. That fish was amazing, they somehow managed to take a whole fish and then sort of just pull off the sides and slice them into little sushi strips without disturbing the head or tail. Thankfully the Japanese don't eat the head or tail, or at least Junko's family didn't. The meal was really a lot of fun. I sat with Momma-San on my left, Junko on my right, and Kazuki on her right. Momma-San decided that Junko should take care of Kazuki, and she should take care of me. So she immediately started babbling on and gesturing at the various parts of the meal. Unfortunately all this did was cause me to constantly turn to Junko and ask her what the hell her mom was babbling on about. Of course Junko didn't have much time to talk to me because she was busy babbling on to a very excited Kazuki. The whole scene was hilarious. I learned later that Momma-San was engaged in a game of "let's see if James can handle eating all kinds of different raw things." In fact the whole family was playing this game, all of them encouraging me to eat some of everything. The joke was on them though as I have eaten Japanese food for years and love all of it. I scarfed up everything they shoved at me and proclaimed everything to be "very tasty" (in Japanese, it's another term they taught me). I had a hell of a lot of fun. When the meal was over and we where leaving Tomo got me to say "very tasty" to all the waitresses, which caused a great commotion of laughter. Either my accent is really funny, or what they actually taught me to say is "Stupid American."

After dinner we all headed back to our room to find that it had been transformed into a bedroom. This is accomplished by clearing out the dwarf table and legless chairs and replacing them with thin futons, blankets, and pillows. However it was still kind of early so no sleep for us yet. Earlier in the day we had stopped off to pick up some fireworks for Kazuki, so some of us decided to head out and light them up. I was a little nervous at first that they would be some kind of insane, illegal in the US, rocket things, but they turned out to just be your standard sparklers. It was sort of fun for a little while, but we bought roughly 4 billion sparklers, so the evening went on and on and on. Kazuki loved it anyway, so it was a good deal. After sparklers we all headed to the spa. This time I went with Junko's brothers, so I had a better idea of what I was supposed to do. I don't think I made such an ass of myself.

After the spa it was time to unwind with the family a bit and enjoy a nice cold beer, or "beeru" as the Japanese say. Kuni has that funny asian thing where after one beer he gets pretty damned trashed and turns bright red. While we where all relaxing I actually experienced my first ever earthquake. That's right, all of a sudden the floor I was lounging on suddenly shook a bit. It felt sort of like a huge roll of thunder that was big enough to move the ground. Junko has a thing about earthquakes so she was less then thrilled. I thought it was neat. It was just a tiny baby one, no one seemed to care much.

Eventually it got late (as it tends to do) so it was time for bed. I should point out that Kuni and his family had a seperate room, so it was just me, Junko, Mamma-San, Tomo, and Yuuki in our room. Let me tell you, nothing more fun after a long day then snuggling up for bed with your girlfriend... and half of her family. It was an oddly bonding experience. I always had my own room, so I'm not used to sleeping next to friends and family, but it's really relaxing and fun to be surrounded by good people at bed time. Actually relaxing might not be the best term. As we where all snuggled in and starting to doze off Tomo proclaimed "TYPHOON" and rolled over across the floor over me and Junko. Apparently he also warned me that he's one of those guys who moves around in his sleep. Junko decided not to translate this for me and just hope for the best. At one point in the night I woke up to find a sleeping Tomo trying his best to snuggle his head on my stomach. I tried to move away, but this guy was completely into it. I didn't know what the hell to do. Yuuki came to the rescue by opening one eye, saying "ayyyyyyyyyy" in a surprisingly deep voice, and smacking him. That did the trick. Later in the night I woke up when he was apparently trying to push his entire hand into my left ear. Next time I sleep with the family I'm letting Junko sleep next to her brother.

Day 2 - Adventure World

The next day started with a somewhat Western style breakfast. Not the content of the food, which was lots of rice and fish. But the fact that we sat in chairs that had legs at a table that was tall enough to sit at. It was a nice feeling of normality. From there we all gathered up our belongings, checked out of the hotel, and headed on out to Adventure World. This was a pleasant surprise for me because I had no idea were we where going. I just sat in the back seat of the mini van, getting amped on iced cohee, and the next thing I know... Adventure World! Adventure World is a safari park type place with a roller coaster and things for the kids. I guess it's not that different from those kinds of places in the US, though it did have that sort of Japanese extra cuteness about it. The thing I noticed about Japan is that cute, cartoony type characters are MUCH more prevelant then in the US. In the States cartoons are for kids and ideals like working together, friendliness, and loyalty are more for teaching children. In Japan it seems like even the dissafected teenagers still value these ideals and these rediculously cute cartoon images. I think that's why the Japanese love Disney so much. I'm probably wrong, whatever, but the fact is that most places have a more cute feel, and Adventure World was no different.

We started our day in a line for the safari train type thing. I think the main attraction of the safari train was that it was air conditioned. Here's Mizuki illustrating how hot and sticky it was out there. The safari train first took us through the herbivore enclosures where we got to see your typical elephants and antelope and what not. They had a US section that had buffalo. I told Junko we have a lot of Buffalo in Philadelphia, which she found very interesting. Then the safari train took us to the carnivore enclosures, which was like entering Jurassic park. We had to drive through one gate into this area surrounded by barbed wire and fencing. Only when the gate behind us closed did the gate in front open to let us in. Very dramatic. I was expecting wild Japanese flesh eating monsters on all sides. Instead I got the usual assortment of bored looking lions and what not. Still, I think everyone had fun. I guess in general there aren't many stories to tell from Adventure World. Junko and I went on a little roller coaster, we saw a couple of pandas, penguins, and a polar bear.

After Adventure World our trip to Wakayama was over. We all piled back into the cars and headed back to Kobe. By the time we got back everyone was pretty much exhausted, so we went to a pretty simple restaraunt for a nice meal at a dwarf table with no chairs. Keep in mind that after a year of yoga I still have pretty inflexible hips, so every one of these floor meals ends in the same way for me, I try to stand up on two legs that feel like they're made of solid wood. Anyway I don't really remember the rest of the night, but I imagine it involved sleeping.

Day 3 - Kobe City

The next morning was our first in Japan with no real schedule. The plan was to get into Kobe and just hang out. I was completely thrilled by this because after many months of Auckland, I was dying to get back into a dense, urban place again. So after some time spent making ourselves beautiful, we headed on out to the bus stop. Momma-San lives up a hill about ten minutes from a train station. Luckily there's a bus that takes us down the hill. Tomo and Yuuki live right around the corner from Momma-San, so we meet up with them at the bus stop to begin our Kobe adventure.

Here's my first photo of Kobe. I think it was neat because this building looked like a whole mash of buildings all crushed together. It also illustrates an odd fact about Kobe. You see Kobe is sort of an interesting place to the Japanese because it's highly influenced by European design. The Japanese like to vacation in Kobe and see all the buildings that look like they're from Europe. Unfortunately this same quality is what makes Kobe architectually uninteresting to Europeans (and Americans). Still, I thought that building was kind of neat. Tomo asked Junko why the heck I was taking a picture of that.

The first order of business was to find me a fish shirt. I don't know if you've noticed, but Tomo wears these really awesome t-shirts with all kinds of bright patterns on them. You can't tell from the photos, but the patterns are actually stitched in. What amazed me was that they where of things that grown men would not wear in the US, things like fish and leaves in fall. So I decided that I needed to get a hold of my own fish shirt, and that's the quest we started with. Unfortunately it dragged on a bit as we went through a bunch of bizarre shops, all of which seemed sort of dark and pretentious and would have been a bit intimidating except for the fact that they where selling fish t-shirts. I'm pleased to report that in the end I managed to find myself a fish shirt. Of course you'll notice that by then Tomo had moved on to dragon shirts.

After that we just wandered. Not much commentary needed for this part of the story. Japanese looking building. Busy looking urban stuff. Even more urban stuff. Here's one of my favourite sign. Here's a creepy one with Meg Ryan in it. I'm not sure how it is that she's become the face for some Japanese drink product, but you see her on a bunch of billboards over there. Apparently her career is back and she's suddenly 25 years old. That pic was actually taken from out front of my favourite new fast food joint, Nakau. This was like what McDonalds would be like if it served Japanese food. It was cheap, quick, and painfully tasty.

After Kobe we all headed home and I imagine did something incredibly interesting and Japanese. It probably involved eating. I don't remember. Actually it is worth mentioning that just before we arrived Momma-San had passed her chef's test. She's actually not a professional cook or anything, she's just good at it. So I can say that all of my home cooked meals where prepared by a licensed, Japanese chef. Pretty cool, huh?

Day 4 - The Bridge

The next day was really very exciting for me for 2 reasons. The first is that Junko had told me that she had secretely planned a trip. The second is that in order to get to our destination, we would take a bullet train! Now I've had an interest in bullet trains for a long time, and one of the things I was really looking forward to was a chance to actually ride on one. So now in a very exciting series of pictures you get to see my first ever bullet train pull into the station. This particular bullet train was going to be taking us to Hiroshima. Thankfully Hiroshima was not our ultimate destination. I was not overly thrilled with the idea of visiting Hiroshima. After a lifetime of hearing about this place it's incredibly unnerving to actualy stand in it. Thankfully we only had to be there for about 20 minutes to catch another train. I took a photo of the station to prove I was there and happily hopped onto the train.

This next bullet train brought us to our destination, which was a cute little tourist town that contained this bridge. Apparently this bridge had originally been built back in the 1600s by some guy who came up with this unusual design. It's all made of wood, so this is actually not the first incarnation of the bridge. It has been rebuilt, using the same design, a handful of times since then, most recently in 1994. I can't say I fully understand the importance of this bridge to the Japanese, but they like it enough to have built this little tourist town around it and to charge you to cross it. On our way over we passed a family full of fatties from the US (midwest by their accents) with the dad loudly saying "I can't beleive they charge you to cross over that crap."

On the other side of the bridge is an even more touristy town which was really pretty cute. Here's me in front of the main road. Here's a picture of one of the buildings. Notice the castle on top of that one, we'll be heading there soon. First we stopped in one of the yards to see a traditional Japanese house. From there is was off to the ski lift gondola thing area to catch a lift to the top of the mountain.

From the top we got to take a look out over the whole area, which I was shocked to see was more then just a tourist town. We also got to see this clock which I thought was extra cool because the numbers on the face are in Japanese (which seems obvious but isn't as all the other clocks I had seen have the numbers we're used to seeing on them). Junko and I sat up there by the clock and had some lunch for a while. Momma-San had packed us some rice balls for lunch. Rice balls are this awesome Japanese food that I really enjoy. Basically you get a handful of sticky rice, put a little kernel of something tasty (usually fish based) in the middle, and moosh it all into a sort of triangular shaped snow ball. It's incredibly easy to make, and very tasty. What's doubly cute is that Momma-San wrapped them up in a handkerchief thing for us.

After lunch we strolled on down a forresty path to see my first ever Japanese castle. I was actually really excited about this. Earlier in the day we had been at a train station that showed us a layout of some castle somewhere and it was just awesome. Also, while on the train we had passed a town with a very impressive castle up on a hill. So I was very pumped to see my own real live castle. Unfortunately for me, this sign soon crushed most of my excitement. It turns out that this particular castle was built in the 1970s. There had been a castle in this town way back when the bridge was built. But back then the area's ruler was a bit picky about local lords building castles and armies and challenging his power, so he sent some folks on over to check out the bridge and tear down that castle. But in the late 60s or so the fine folks at the local tourism board decided that while the bridge was really great, what was needed to rake in some tourist cash was a real live castle. So a castle was built. Oh well, authentic or not, there where some nice views from the top.

From there we headed on back down to get a better look at the little town and the bridge. We even got some nice guy to take a picture of us. Then it was back over, one more parting shot and back to Kobe for us.

Day 5 - Painting the town with Momma-San

The next day was reserved for Junko and her mom to spend some time together. Unfortunately for them I can't really just wander off and do my own thing, so they got to baby sit me as well. The day started off with a visit to China town. I really wish this picture wasn't blurry. From there we went to check out one of the shopping tunnels of Kobe. I'm not really sure what the deal is, but Kobe has a lot of these enclosed strips of stores. It's nice because they manage to bring the temperature down in these areas with the help of what I can only assume are gigantic air conditioning units that run on their own nuclear power plants. No use describing most of the shopping day, it was just shopping. It is sort of funny to point out that Momma-San has this amazing mental map of Kobe. What makes her mental map unusual is that its laid out by areas of least heat. She can get from anywhere to anywhere while managing to stay inside air conditioned places the whole time. This means cutting through a giant maze of shopping malls, train stations, and occasionally individual stores. It also means that if those two lost me at any point during this trip I would still be lost, wandering through Kobe. Along the way we managed to see some interesting things like this big shiny ball and this very cool car.

After our shopping and wandering we headed to the City Countil building. This was a rather tall building in Kobe which had an observation deck on the top floor. Junko and Momma-San took a load off while I wandered around taking pictures of Kobe. This one is close to my heart because if you look closely you can see the UCC Coffee sign. In general I was just really happy to be surrounded by city again.

While I was wandering around the observation tower I stumbled upon something that I thought was just incredibly cool. If you've never heard of the term "Sister City" before then let me take a brief moment to explain. It turns out that there's some organization somewhere that helps set up this sister city thing between cities in the world. I think pairing basically just means the cities get a bunch of phone numbers and names so that they can be in touch with the officials in the other city. It helps with things like student exchanges and business contacts and what not. The whole idea sounds fun to me, but I'm vague on the details. However while I was taking my pictures of Kobe I ran into a big display case of all of Kobe's sister cities. Those of you from Philly (ie most of you reading this) should immediately notice the shelf to the right. That's right, Philly and Kobe are sister cities. How cool is that? After so many days in a completely foreign land it was really amazing to see a shelf full of things from my home town. Who would have thought I'd ever be so proud to see that old cracked bell again?

It's funny to note that on our way down from the observation deck we heard all these announcements coming over the building's PA system. I couldn't figure out what it was about, but it was this soothing woman's voice that kept on counting to 8 over and over. I was very confused and turned to Junko for a translation. She looked equally confused and was busy talking to her mom for an explenation. Turns out that it was time for the afternoon excersizes and the soothing voice was currently leading all the workers through a nice round of stretches. Momma-San said "they're city workers, who knows what the hell they're doing?"

Our next order of business was a trip to the movie theatre. It turns out that Momma-San is a huge fan of Hollywood movies. A friend of mine told me before I left for Japan that Japanese movies are extremely odd and foreign to Japanese people too, and that they prefer Hollywood movies. Today we where going to see Mission Impossible 3. MI:3 is not exactly my kind of film, and I had been more then happy to skip it when it came to Auckland (I can't wait for Tom Cruise's career to crash and burn so he can stop ruining movies) but Momma-San was very excited, which meant that for this day, I was very excited. The movie theatre turned out to be significantly smaller then any theatre I'd ever seen. I'm talking like 8 rows here. I'm not sure if this is how all Japanese theatres are or not, as this was the only movie I saw while there. Anyway once the light's went down then it was pretty much like every other movie experience with the one exception of the Japanese sub titles along the bottom. I was sort of glad to sit in a room with a whole bunch of English speakers for a while, even if they where just pictures on a screen. After the movie we wandered over to the water front area for a while. It was nice, but since it does not have a train station directly next to it, nobody really goes there. There wasn't much to see or do, so we headed back home.

Day 6 - Tokyo

Friday morning was an exciting one for me. Junko and I had plans to take a trip into Tokyo. And not just any trip, a bullet train trip. Yes I had already been on some long haul bullet train journeys when we went on to the bridge, but this was a bullet train to Tokyo! I've been wanting to see Tokyo for a long time, and it was finally going to happen. And I have to tell you, I was not dissapointed. If anything Tokyo was far cooler then I could have hoped for.

After a 3 and a half hour train ride (which was very relaxing) we arrived in the Akihabor district (pardon my spelling). This is the tech central of Tokyo. And since Tokyo is pretty much tech central to the world... this was a significant area to be in. My first impression of Tokyo was that it was just freaking packed! The train station was crammed full of people and it showed no signs of being any less crammed full in the near future. We weren't there at rush hour or anything like that, it was just that this train station was always this full. Amazing. Anyway, our first order of business was to do some shopping for a few odds and ends in the tech area. We saw a bunch of cool shops and managed to get everything on our list.

From there we where off to our hotel in Shinjuku. We weren't really planning on staying long, we just wanted to drop off our stuff and head back on out. Our hotel was sort of out of the main shopping center and in an area of tall buildings. Here's the view from our window. The room was your more typical, Western style hotel room, complete with a bed, which was a first for me in my time in Japan.

We left our bags behind and headed out for an afternoon in Shibuya. Junko had asked me what I wanted to see in Tokyo, and I said just take me to places with big buildings and tons of people (that and the area where a scene from Lost in Translation was filmed). We decided on an afternoon in Shibuya and the evening in Shinjuku. Shibuya was neat, filled with people and oddball buildings. This rather sinister looking building is home to the Disney store. Down one of the quiet side streets we saw a store from Philly. Proud to see the home town representing. We did the usual things in Shibuya, shopping, wandering, staring with a slack jaw at all the cool buildings. Then we hopped back on the train to make our way back for an evening in Shinjuku.

Our first order of business in Shinjuku was to find a place to eat dinner. Unfortunately neither of us know the first thing about the area, so we didn't know what to do. After much wandering around we found a place that I imagine was sort of like the TGI Fridays of Japan, not exactly high quality, but a better then average chain. However for a Westerner it was darned cool. For one thing every booth was completely enclosed, so when you where walking down the hallways you felt like you where all alone. Then instead of a typical menu, they had a touch screen monitor at our table. Press a few buttons, hit the OK key, and a minute later a waiter would show up with our food on a tray. Not only that, but the place served horse meat! How's that for unusual? I didn't have any because I have a few friends who would never speak to me again if I ate horse. Junko and I had a lovely time gorging ourselves on whatever looked good on the monitor. It was fun.

From there it was time to really check out Shinjuku. My opinion is that it was damned cool. I think this was the main strip I was looking for from Lost in Translation, and it was great. Completely packed with people and bright like daytime with all the lights. Plus all the side streets where also packed. We basically just wandered up and down until we had seen most of it. On side street ended in this big plaza and movie theatre where all kinds of folks where just sort of lounging around. From there we wandered back to the train station, and got pretty well lost. Eventually we found the place where the hotel shuttle bus would pick us up, but we where a half hour past the final bus, so that didn't work out for us. We grabbed a cab back to the hotel and called it a night.

Day 7 - The quest for Mosburger

Before we left for Japan, Junko had listed out some of the restaraunts she wanted to eat at. One of the places on that list was called Mosburger. Not long after she told me that I was chatting on the IM with David when I mentioned that I was going to Japan. He freaked out and told me there was one place I had to eat at while in Japan, Mosburger. Then he corrected himself and said actually I should only eat at Mosburger if I could eat there enough times so that I got sick of it. Because if I didn't then I would go back to New Zealand craving it so bad that I would go crazy. So as you can see, Mosburger was high on our list of places to eat. We actually did eat there once while at Wakayama, but we decided we needed to go again. Therefore our quest for the morning was to find a Mosburger.

As something of an aside, our quest began with an interesting find, and yet another Philadelphia reference. Many of you may recognize this sculpture. However it may not look so familiar in this settings. This is actually the third love sculpture I've seen in my life. The second was in Singapore, but I don't have a picture of it. According to the one in Singapore the artist scattered them all over the world. I always think it's fun to run into one.

Unfortunately the love sculpture would be our only find for a while. You see it turns out that Tokyo is not exactly a Mosburger haven. Junko and I decided that our morning outing would be to check out ginza, and hope for a Mosburger there. So we hopped onto a train and started the trip. Turned out to be a long trip, and at that point we where feeling a bit fatigued. Since we had to check out of our hotel we where carrying all our stuff in our packs and it was heavy. In order to get to Ginza we'd have to grab another train and the truth is that by that point neither of us really wanted to wander around anywhere anyway. So we looked for a Mosburger at the train station we where at and found nothing. We hopped back on the train and took in one stop back towards Shinkuku. Then we got out and looked around again. No luck. I think we tried this same trick for yet another stop and started to get pissed off. Seemed like we had seen Mosburgers everywhere the day before, but now there where none to be found. We knew we had seen one at Shinjuku, so we decided to hop on the train, head there, and jump out if we saw a Mosburger on the way. Well a couple of stops later we found one. It was pretty damned glorious. Sorry for yet another blurry photo, but here's the sign declaring that their quality beef is imported from New Zealand (take THAT US mad cows).

So with our Mosburger craving satisfied we headed back to the main bullet train station to get back to Kobe. I was sad to see Tokyo go, it is truly an awesome city.

Day 8 - The Voyage Home

You know how it goes, all good things... The next morning we awoke for our last day in Japan. The flight wasn't until the early evening, so Junko and I headed into town for some last minute shopping. I don't think we where terribly succesful, but it was nice to get a chance to be in Kobe one last time. Unfortunately we had to return eventually so that Tomo, Yuuki, and Momma-San could take us to the airport bus. We all stood around for a bit while the Japanese speakers babbled away a bit. I asked Junko "are you all doing that thing where you stand around making awkward small talk while we wait to say goodbye?" "Yes" she says. Sort of sad really, I hate doing that thing. I tried to inject some levity by asking them all to give me a sad goodbye face. I start it off, Junko plays along, Momma-San ignores me, Yuuki does what she does best, and good old Tomo shows me his ass.